The annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association concluded this afternoon. This year was a good one for Kierkegaard. The Søren Kierkegaard Society always sponsors a session at the APA meetings, but this year, there was actually a colloquium paper on Kierkegaard as well. The paper, entitled “Kierkegaard’s Revision of the Aristotelian Virtue of Courage,” was presented by Karl Aho, a graduate student from Baylor as part of a colloquium on Aristotle. The colloquium took place on the 27th, the first evening of the conference. I had only just returned from Denmark, where I’d spent Christmas with friends (and where I’d also attended a talk at the law faculty of the University of Copenhagen which will be the subject of a forthcoming post to my other blog: “The Life of the Mind”), so I missed Aho’s presentation. Fortunately, an abstract of the paper is available on the APA website. I took the liberty of copying it for readers who, like me, were not able to attend the session themselves. “Several authors,” observes Aho,
have proposed that we view Kierkegaard as a virtue theorist. In this paper, I further develop this virtue approach by discussing several Kierkegaardian arguments about the virtue of courage. Against Aristotle’s account of courage, Kierkegaard claims that we ought not limit courage to only those extraordinary individuals who risk their lives to perform noble deeds. Kierkegaard revises the Aristotelian virtue by expanding our understanding of which situations call for courage. By widening the scope of situations that call for courage, Kierkegaard’s understanding of courage enables people to respond courageously in those situations. I conclude by discussing the implications of Kierkegaard’s view of courage for his authorship more broadly construed. Kierkegaard’s understanding of courage can inform our interpretation of pseudonymous texts, like Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death, in which courage plays a central role.
My own feeling is that Aho is not doing justice to Aristotle here, but that, for Kierkegaard scholars anyway, is less interesting than the positive position Aho develops on Kierkegaard’s own view of courage. The latter appears promising, so it would be nice to see the paper in print soon.
Unfortunately, I do not have access to abstracts of the papers that were presented in the session sponsored by the Søren Kierkegaard Society. I do not want to summarize them for fear I wouldn’t do justice to them. The session was on Kierkegaard and Narrative and the speakers were John Davenport of Fordham, Jeffrey Hanson (whose coiffure is strikingly reminiscent of Kierkegaard’s own) of Australian Catholic University, and Frances Maughan-Brown, of Boston College. The commentator (whose name, for some reason, did not make it into the official program) was Clare Carlisle. The titles of the papers will give readers an idea of the content. Davenport’s paper, “Psychological Narrativity and the Limits of Ethical Self-Authorship,” was a continuation of a dialogue he and Anthony Rudd have been having for some time on the role of narrative in Kierkegaard (see Rudd’s Self, Value and Narrative: A Kierkegaardian Approach and Davenport’s Narrative Identity, Autonomy, and Mortality: From Frankfurt and MacIntyre to Kierkegaard). Hanson’s paper was entitled “Aesthetic Ideals and the Task of Repetition,” and Maughan-Brown’s paper was entitled “Kierkegaard and Allegorical Narrative.”
The discussion after the papers was lively and productive. Davenport has one of the keenest minds among contemporary Kierkegaard scholars, not only were his comments during the discussion interesting, it was amusing to see him launching, on behalf of the other two panelists, even harsher criticisms of his own position than they had launched themselves.
Unfortunately, the discussion was marked by some confusion concerning the nature of Kierkegaard’s concept of repetition. The term was being used by nearly everyone, panelists, audience members, and even the commentator, Carlisle, in what Davenport finally correctly identified as “the profane sense of mere iteration.” Repetition, for Kierkegaard, is a specifically theological concept. Repetition, as the narrator of Kierkegaard’s eponymous novel discovers, is very far from mere iteration, so far, in fact that he concludes it is simply impossible.
Repetition would appear to be one of the most misunderstood of Kierkegaardian concepts. It’s tempting to conclude that this may be due, at least in part, to it’s theological nature. A closer examination of the concept reveals, however, that what one could call the “problem” of repetition, as Kierkegaard articulates it, is not specifically theological. Only the solution is. The problem is that for temporal creatures, or at least for human beings, mere iteration always involves some difference, no matter how minute. Even the kinds of daily tasks that were brought up during the discussion, things such as changing diapers or brushing one’s teeth, are never exactly the same, to say nothing of more complex sorts of events such as trips to favorite vacation destinations. The problem is that of recreating a sameness that temporality, in its essence, would appear to preclude, of capturing and preserving an experience that time wrests from our grasp. This, for Kierkegaard, can be accomplished only through divine intervention. Whether he is right about this should be viewed as a challenge to scholars, yet few seem to understand the concept well enough to take it on.